Delivering and Receiving Constructive Feedback: How and Why

December 11, 2020

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve” – Bill Gates

By: Gary Cohen

Secret Formula to Receiving Feedback

It has often been thought that the feedback loop hinges on the giver of feedback, you know, the leader, manager, supervisor. Most leaders believe this (spoiler alert), and they would be absolutely wrong!

It turns out after companies have spent time, money, and resources training those folks on the best way to deliver feedback, the secret is to turn it around. It has more to do with the receiver than the giver. The one who has to suck it up and take it!

Think about it. It is like asking a question to someone you have absolutely no trust in. There is no point in asking because whatever they share with you, you likely will not let any of it in. The same thing goes with feedback. If you are providing feedback to someone not open to the input, there is little point in giving it.

The Cross Wiring That Causes Poor Feedback

Likely none of it will ever reach them in a way that will help them adapt, change, or modify behavior, thinking, or beliefs. Even though we are wired to learn and grow, we are also wired to defend ourselves, and it is that counter drive that is a barrier to our taking in feedback about ourselves. It is also true that those of us that can see feedback as helpful and positive show up generatively to others. They are the people you want on your team.

Think for a moment about the employee that resists feedback and how tiresome it is to be on the same team or even in the same organization as them. At the same time, the other employee who is always looking and receiving feedback in an affirming way is so much easier to play in the sandbox with. You would like to believe you are one of these people who takes it in, and yet the odds are against you. So you may not want to hold yourself out as an example and allow in what the rest of the post has to offer you.

Three Barriers to Constructive Feedback

When you get feedback, the first reaction, especially if it is not favorable, to get triggered. The trigger is about your ego being threatened. It may not be a physical attack, and yet every part of it feels that way overwhelmed or going to collapse by the weight of all that you are hearing as if you are being annihilated. Imagine being grabbed; it can be and often is physiological.

The feeling maybe like a ball of energy bouncing around actually within your body, or a faster heart rate, a restlessness.  Your body releases chemicals that flood your system and creates barriers to your listening openly and being focused. Your body has perfected a set of defense mechanisms to protect you when under attack. These defenses are unconscious, lightning-fast, and exert a great deal of influence on our behaviors. These unconscious defense mechanisms are the barriers to feedback, according to the authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen authors of Thank You For The Feedback, are caused by three triggers:

  1. Truth – The content is wrong, not helpful, or unfair
  2. Relationship – “I can’t hear the feedback from you.”
  3. Identity – The feedback threatens WHO I AM

These are potent triggers, and merely ignoring them does not help that only leads to repression of the act of shoving them away and pushing them out of consciousness. This shoving apart has a way of showing  up as:

  • Denial in which the person does not want to recognize external things from being real.
  • Projection in which we attribute our unwelcome thoughts about ourselves onto someone else.
  • Displacement is another way it shows up in which the individual vents their frustration onto someone or something else, The Chain of Screams.
  • Regression is another form that happens when ignoring triggers, which shows up as immaturity – bring you back to the behavior you learned when you first encountered one of these uncomfortable realities.
  • Sublimation happens when you try to satisfy your impulse in a socially unacceptable way, such as using drugs to avoid the feelings you are having around a trigger.
  • Rationalization – is the use of alternative facts because we can not handle the truth.
  • Reaction Formation – this is on the other side of denial in which the person behaves to the opposite of their own beliefs. The conscious feelings are the opposite of the unconscious. This is when the politician who is adamantly opposed to gays, and they learn later that they are gay.

As you can see and have seen in yourself and others, not accepting and learning when you feel triggered can have a significant impact on you and your relationships. Now that you know what these three triggers and what happens when you ignore them, let’s take a look at how to help you and your employees find strategies to overcome these three triggers based on Thank You For The Feedback.

Overcoming Feedback Triggers

Truth Triggers

See which of the three types of feedback you are receiving. The art of providing this is either as the giver or receiver of the feedback you can help determine the kind of feedback you are about to give or get before the input is provided. If your evaluation is part of the feedback, it is better to have that given ahead of time by several days before coaching or appreciation is given. The reason is that the receiver will not hear the other while still processing the evaluation regardless of positive or negative.:

  1. Appreciation – This is being provided a positive stroke. I will say that it is better heard if you do it in the form of a selfish compliment.
  2. Coaching – Focusing on helping others overcome the challenges they face. This can be performance coaching, transformational coaching or some other forms of coaching that is needed based on the situation.
  3. Evaluation – To rank, assess, or rate you. This is a way to set a standard and see how you are performing against that set point or in comparison with someone or many as the standard barrier. This can come off as very judgemental and yet those that do not get evaluation then seek coaching and appreciation.

“Intuitive diagnosis is reliable when people have a lot of relevant feedback. But people are very often willing to make intuitive diagnoses even when they’re very likely to be wrong”  – Daniel Kahneman

First Understand Before Being Understood

In the management/coaching space, this simple statement is said so often and yet not ever enough. Brand it onto your skin with a tattoo. There are so many personal challenges to emphatic listening that allows for deeper understanding and in receiving and understanding feedback while listening. Most feedback comes from two places observable data and interpretation. If you are the giver try hard to provide the observations without the interpretations to have a more meaningful feedback session. If you are the receiver separate the two and ask for greater clarity on the observational data. Here are three ways you can improve your understanding of the other:

  • Feedback is vague – Our language can be so general and when generalities and fat words are used, it leads to misunderstanding. Find out precisely what the person is providing the feedback means. Ask for concrete examples. Be curious rather than what will likely come naturally, defensiveness.
  • Giver and receiver have different interpretations  – What is said and what are heard are often very different. In the giver’s mind, it all makes sense, and the mismatch with the receiver can put up barriers. Serve up the questions that will get clarity for both of you by not just listening but emphatically listening.
  • It is unclear where feedback comes from or where it is going – For feedback to be good, it must have GPS coordinates (Goal, Position, & Strategy).
    • Goal: Where is it we are going?
    • Position: Where is it where we are?
    • Strategy: How are we going to get there?

Open Your Eyes Wider; You have Blind Spots

As executive coaches, one of our most important roles is helping leaders identify they have blind spots. No one is immune, including you. It is these blind spots that will snag you every time. A blind spot is what is known to others and unknown to ourselves. This can be best illustrated by Johari’s Window.

Feedback is an effective means of having someone open their eyes wider. Some of the ways blind spots show up are via:

  • Facial Cues
  • Tone distortions
  • pattern incongruence
  • email messaging

You can begin to eliminate your blind spots by illuminating them, according to author Madeleine Van Hecke by following these five strategies. To get more details hit link Illuminate Blind Spots

  1. Reflect
  2. When something goes wrong, don’t just ask, “how did that happen?”
  3. Ask
  4. Go from furious to curious
  5. Learn

Relationship Triggers

Who has everything to do with feedback? Think about if you hear something from your Mom or Dad vs. your adult children. Suppose the message comes from your Boss vs. Subordinate. It makes a difference in how you listen to information, context matters. It is so easy to dismiss information by merely dismissing the qualities or qualifications of the giver. In doing this, you are missing out on feedback that can improve your performance.

Don’t Switchtrack

If you watch conversations strictly after learning about switchtracks, you will have just improved your acuity of listening and improving your communications ten fold! Switchtracking happens when one person begins with feedback, and the next person changes the conversation. As this unfolds, the two people are still deep into conversation, and yet they are in two discussing two different topics. This is like a train switching track! It is often the relationship trigger that causes us to switchtrack.

You are providing feedback to your co-worker about how they are showing up, and you inadvertently say it in a mocking way (Blind Spot). And rather than hear the feedback, the receiver has switchtracked the topic defensively to how you deliver the message. In this case, the receiver plays the victim and feeling unheard, and the giver feels unappreciated for taking the risk of offering the feedback.  Relationship triggers happen in two ways:

  1. What we think about them –  There are three ways you will typically put up barriers to the provider of feedback they come in the form of credibility, trust, or skill/judgment.
  2. How we feel treated by them – You will also find that how you interpret the way they treat you will get you switchtracking. These show up through appreciation, autonomy, and acceptance.

Identity Triggers

When we feel that feedback threatens our needs for security, approval, or control, then we can become defensive.
We tend to reject feedback when we are “below the line,” and the significant factors for going below are fear of losing security, approval, and control.

Understand Your Baseline, Swing, and Sustain/Recovery Values

Since everyone receives feedback in different ways, Heen and Stone set up a three-variable system for measuring feedback sensitivity: baseline, swing, and sustain/recovery.

1. Baseline

On a scale of one to 10, what’s your general level of happiness? Heen says that everyone drifts towards one average level—from absurdly happy to ceaselessly grumpy. “One of the reasons baseline is important is that if you do have a relatively low baseline like you’re a two or a three, positive feedback can sometimes be muffled for you,” Heen says. “If you have a high baseline, you won’t hear negative feedback.”

2. SwingSwing and Recovery

When you receive positive or negative feedback, how far do you drift from your baseline? For example, some people will be devastated by a negative comment, but others maintain a thicker skin. Heen says, “this can also cause tension in teams, since some people’s swings are overreactions, while others seem nonchalant and passive.”

3. Sustain/Recovery

How long do you sustain positive feedback? Alternatively, how long do you take to recover from negative criticism? Heen points out that the two can exist independently—you might sustain compliments for a short period but beat yourself up about blame, or you could ride the tribute high for too long and inadvertently ignore any criticism. “Being very sensitive to feedback is challenging,” Heen says. “But being insensitive or even-keel in the face of feedback has its challenges because sometimes it just won’t stick with you.”

Three Triggers that Cause Identity Distortion


Identity Triggers

By understanding Identity Triggers, you can protect against defensiveness in both receiving and giving feedback to others. Pay attention to how you interpret your past. James Carse says many people think like this, “I do not want to think, you think I am as lousy, and I think you think I am.”

When giving or receiving feedback be mindful of the three triggers: Truth, Relationship, and Identity they will dramatically improve how you communicate with others.

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